Real democracy in our schools

October 20, 2011

I STARTED my Saturday morning going to the Washington State Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Legislative Assembly to assist parents in Parents Across America-Seattle, an activist group of parents, in opposing charter school legislation in the state. It wasn't easy waking up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, but I knew it was important that people know the negative effect that charter schools can have on our public schools.

As a teacher, one would think that parents in the PTA would be very interested in hearing from teachers about significant changes to Washington laws on delivering a public education to their children, particularly given the well-known fact that teachers are underrepresented in PTAs all over. Imagine my shock when, approaching a group of parents in the hotel lobby with flyers, one woman tore the stack of flyers out of my hand in a completely hysterical rage, then went up to another teacher and ripped flyers from her hands as well and then threw them in the trash!

I wanted to let delegates in the PTA know how charters have a higher teacher turnover, unfairly exclude underperforming students and siphon money from other public schools. However, we were unable to continue handing out flyers and talking to parents about a teacher's perspective on charter schools. The president, vice president and executive director of the state PTA all tried to assure us that they would consider approving the flyer for distribution. Never mind that the debate and vote was set to occur in mere minutes.

Turns out the PTA vote to support legislation in Wash. for the creation of charter schools passed by a mere nine votes, despite the PTA's own survey of members that found a majority opposed to bringing charters to the state. In fact the influence of corporate, pro-charter forces, such as Stand with Children, on the top echelons of the Washington State PTA caused them to not provide delegates any information critical of charters, at all.

The outcome was difficult to face given the attacks on public education these days. However, my disappointment was short lived as I made my way to Occupy Seattle. There was an immediate contrast of the undemocratic repression I experienced at the PTA convention with the people's democracy of the occupation's rally and march.

The rally at Westlake Park, part of an international day of action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, was already in the thousands when I got there. Teachers in the Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file group of educators in Seattle, gathered in a contingent. We had a table with a sign-up for union members and labor supporters of the occupation. We displayed our banner, "Bail out Schools, Not the Banks!" and answered questions of protesters visiting our table.

There were people discussing all sorts of political questions all over the square, including, among other things, charter schools. Various groups had tables where they distributed all sorts of propaganda on issues like corporate greed, the war in Afghanistan and socialism. And individual protesters had many myriad homemade signs raising many social issues as well.

But this was just the beginning. On the march protesters stopped and occupied for some moments the Pike Place Market intersection. When an ambulance neared unable to get through, protesters needed no instructions and immediately parted to let them through chanting, "This is what Democracy looks like."

When the march neared the plaza, SEE members organized an impromptu sit-in in front of the Chase bank across the street. Thousands sat in the street, the sidewalks and the plaza listening as teachers and community members sounded off on corporate greed and what it will take to curtail it.

Later protesters re-occupied Westlake with over 100 tents. The sense that it is possible to make the change we want to see in the world was palpable and that solidarity with one another is key in making that change happen. Most people coming to the occupations have a healthy rejection of free market, corporate driven solutions to public ills such as charter schools.

Like the occupiers, most teachers recognize the undue influence of the uber-wealthy 1 percent on school reforms such as charter schools and merit pay. It's these changing winds that might be frustrating the angry woman from the PTA.

The PTA leadership should take a lesson and hold their Legislative Assembly down at Westlake Park. They may learn a thing or two from the other 99 percent about democracy and what's needed to improve public education.
Dan Trocolli, teacher and member of Social Equality Educators, Seattle

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